Peacock P's and Q's

By Jeffrey Kluger|Monday, February 01, 1993
As far back as I can remember, I’ve never gotten along very well with birds. With the exception of the occasional Cornish game hen with wild rice dressing, nearly every relationship I’ve ever had with a member of the avian family has ultimately gone fowl.

My problems started with Pretty Boy, the first in a series of doomed parakeets my parents bought for my brothers and me in the early 1960s. Actuarial tables call for parakeets to live about seven to ten years, but in my house they rarely lasted that long; typically they enjoyed a life span comparable to that of a head of iceberg lettuce. For a while we took to replacing each Pretty Boy, naming all the subsequent birds Pretty Boy as well, on the theory that it was tough to get too attached to a pet you would miss altogether if you spent a long afternoon out of the house. Nobody knew why our parakeets never survived, though I suspected the deaths were self-inflicted, the result of living in a home with four boys under the age of ten. This suspicion was eventually confirmed when the last three Pretty Boys left notes.

After a time we decided to try our luck with canaries, buying a bright yellow, highly musical bird we named Elvis. Elvis thrived in our home for several years, until one day he escaped from his cage, using the wily ruse of flying out the little door when I accidentally left it open overnight. The next afternoon, while barnstorming an aunt’s bouffant, Elvis snagged and broke his right foot. My brothers and I took it upon ourselves to fix him up, using a tiny, tiny Popsicle-stick splint and a tiny, tiny strip of Band-Aid. Unfortunately, this treatment didn’t cause the broken foot to heal, but to, well, fall off. Had Elvis had access to legal counsel, he would no doubt have filed a tiny, tiny lawsuit. Instead he just grew old and bitter, developed a nasty Budgie Biscuit habit, and eventually gave up singing altogether except at the occasional benefit.

I hadn’t thought about Elvis or the parade of Pretty Boys in years, until a few months ago, when I received an invitation in the mail to visit the country’s largest--nay, only--peacock farm, located in the little town of Minden, Iowa. The mailing described the Iowa Peacock Farm as a sort of four-acre fowl factory that for years has been turning out live birds and fertilized eggs for the nation’s growing band of peacock keepers. According to the letter, the husband and wife co-birders who run the place- -Dennis Fett and Debra Buck--had sold their product in nearly every state in the union, had appeared on numerous afternoon talk shows, and had written two peacock books and one peacock song (Peacocks can be happy,/ peacocks can be wacky./ They shake their tails/ and display for their girls./ Wacky, wacky, oh so wacky,/ happy, happy, always happy. / They are wacky all the day long). They even publish a bimonthly newsletter that includes an advice column entitled Ask Mr. Peacock.

To me it sounded like someone had forgotten to take Mr. Prozac, and my first impulse was to decline the invitation. When I called the farm to express my regrets, however, I was immediately taken with Buck and Fett’s enthusiasm. Thanks for calling, Fett said to me, somewhat out of breath, but I really can’t talk right now. There’s this circus guy who lost his peacock, and I’ve got to go help him find it.

The way I see it, you’ve gotta love a guy who can say that and mean it. I booked a flight to the peacock farm.

Fett and Buck’s pastoral spread was pocket-size by Iowa standards, though transplanted to New York, the same four-acre tract would be home to a population roughly the same as greater Turkestan’s. Out here, however, Fett and Buck had the land all to themselves. Well, almost to themselves. No sooner had I stepped out of the car than I was set upon by a welcoming committee consisting of two dogs, nine cats, several dozen guinea fowl, and what I conservatively estimated to be all the geese on the North American continent. In the distance I also spied a few shy but unmistakable peacocks. Fett waded through the crowd and ushered me into the house, where the menagerie continued with an attic room that contained ten parakeets, four lovebirds, one deafeningly loud cockatiel, and--I suspected--the remains of Tippi Hedren.

Before taking me on a tour of the grounds, Fett and Buck invited me to sit down to a primates-only lunch, during which they brought me up to speed on the history of their establishment and on some basic peacock wisdom.

Neither Dennis nor I is a trained ornithologist, Buck began. His education is in music, and the closest I came to veterinary medicine was working in an animal shelter in Omaha in the late 1970s. Our fascination with peacocks happened almost accidentally.

The accident that changed their lives occurred in 1981, when Buck’s pet pig Charly died. At more than 800 pounds, Charly was just a hood ornament shy of legally requiring mud flaps and backup lights, and upon his death Buck went looking for a pet that would be equally unusual. I don’t know why, she said, but somehow I thought a peacock might be the answer.

Fett, an agreeable sort, went along with his wife’s wishes, and in the last 11 years the two of them have acquired more and more of the birds and made it their business to learn all they can about them.

The first thing most people need to know about peacocks concerns their name, Fett told me. Actually, it is only the males that can be correctly called peacocks. Females are known as peahens, babies are peachicks, and the birds as a whole are known as peafowl.

Fett insisted this was no mere PR--indeed, there was more to the peafowl name game. No one is certain where the ‘pea’ prefix originated, he said, but the earliest known references are from ancient Egypt. It seems that the name was inspired by the birds’ small black eyes, which were thought to resemble a type of dark pea. (Good thing the birds didn’t evolve with muddy-colored, light brown eyes, lest today’s ornithologists find themselves referring to them as Lightly Sautéed Eggplant Cocks.)

Peafowl are indigenous to several different places, including the Middle East, India, Malaysia, and 209 local NBC affiliates. The birds are one of 183 species in the quail and pheasant family--distant relatives of the more musical but infinitely more annoying Partridge family. The birds come in two principal colors--blue and green--but within these groups there are a number of other color variations.

There are peacocks with solid black shoulders, said Fett. There are also blue-and-white pied peacocks, blue-green ones, and even pale silvery ones. Birders have used selective breeding to produce other peafowl varieties, including pure white birds and even a rumored rare lavender bird. This last strain, however, is reportedly being targeted for extinction by GOP columnist and goodwill ambassador Patrick Buchanan.

When Fett, Buck, and I began our tour of the peacock farm, the first thing I noticed was that the coloration of the birds did not seem to live up to its advance billing. For the females, this was expected. Since the hens must spend much of their time on the nest protecting their peachicks, it is to their advantage to sport a year-round drab coloration that allows them to blend invisibly into their surroundings, avoid predators, and, not incidentally, save a fortune in fashion and accessory bills. The farm’s males, however, seemed surprisingly dull, too.

What you’re noticing, Fett explained, is that at the moment none of the males have their tail feathers. That’s because the tails--which can grow to six feet--usually appear in early spring and remain in place only until mid-August, when they fall out for the winter. Since I was visiting in early fall, the peacocks had already switched back to their cold-weather peacoats.

We have to assume that the reason nature provided peacocks with such extravagant tails for even part of the year was to help them pick up chicks--or rather, their mothers. For most of the spring and summer, fully feathered cocks will spend hours at a time competing with one another to strut in front of the hens, fan their tails, fluff their chests, and in a pinch, boast about their investment portfolios. When mating does take place, the act itself is usually accompanied by a high-pitched male mating call that sounds a bit like Eeeeee!--the peacock equivalent of Yabba- dabba-doo! This is often followed by a lower-pitched female phone call, warning her friends that this guy was exactly the jerk she thought he would be and that none of them should ever go out with him again.

Of course, the whole purpose of Fett and Buck’s farm is not just to provide a pleasant environment for avian assignations but to breed the birds for a growing army of animal lovers who have decided that giant fowl with piercing cries and six-foot sheddable feathers make the perfect pet. Fett insists that despite the birds’ exotic reputation, a good peafowl can have all the loyalty of a dog, all the self-reliance of a cat, and all the ease of maintenance of a goldfish--though when a full-grown peafowl dies, it can be a lot harder to flush down the toilet. Peafowl also have more stick-to-itiveness than most other pets, enjoying a life span that can reach 25 years, three times as long as the average parakeet and more than 25 times as long as the average Pretty Boy.

I have one peacock, Fett said, that’s so attached to me I can’t even change the oil in my car without him wanting to play. As soon as I get down on the ground, he comes over to peck and nuzzle and just plain be friendly.

While lavishly feathered peafowl typically don’t like to be hugged or petted, they can be fiercely affectionate and even jealous. Once you’ve bonded with a peacock, he may take it upon himself to protect you from the approach of another peacock or any other animal, fluffing his chest and squawking a threat when the interloper comes too close. The birds are also surprisingly trainable. Fett and Buck have one bird that can jump more than four feet in the air to snatch a piece of bread, and another that can untie a pair of shoes on command. Fett boasts that a videotape of this last feat has been accepted for broadcast by the television show America’s Funniest Home Videos, though for some reason the segment has yet to air. (Studio officials deny reports that they are holding on to the tape to determine if host Bob Saget can be trained to perform the same trick.)

If there is any drawback to owning peafowl, it has to do with their voices. When the first few birds caught sight of me, they began to emit a staccato, guttural call that Fett had warned me was their response to anything they find strange or disturbing. Fett described the vocalization as a sort of click, click, click, but to me it sounded more like a ho, ho, ho, a sound I suspected was peafowl for Look! A guy wearing penny loafers on a farm!

This sound is one of seven distinct calls peafowl use in seven distinct situations, including a distress call, which sounds like a high- pitched Whoo-eee, and a flying distress call, which Fett describes as a little like Curly going ‘Woo-woo-woo.’

The idea of having Curly, Shemp, or any other disruptive stooge living next door is often too much for the neighbors of peafowl owners, and Fett frequently receives letters from birders who want to know if there is a way they can keep their critters quiet. In a recent installment of Ask Mr. Peacock, Fett suggested an interspecies détente in which the bird owner invites his neighbor over to dinner, presents him with a bouquet of peacock feathers, and lets him get to know the offending fowl. Such a rapprochement is a nice idea; however, it’s just possible that the disgruntled homeowner who’s spent a year or two living next door to a constant refrain of Eeeeee-whoo-eee-woo-woo-woo! might prefer that the peafowl serve less as the dinner’s guest of honor than as its entrée.

Another problem with peafowl concerns their relative peabrains. While the birds can indeed be taught some simple tricks, potential owners shouldn’t expect much more. During my tour of the farm, it didn’t take long before the peafowl stopped snickering and pointing and walked right up to eat slices of bread directly out of my hand. This I found pleasantly heartwarming--at least until after the bread was gone and many of the peafowl continued to snap casually at my open notepad, evidently fooled by its breadlike shape and color. Clearly, none of these pea-creatures will be enrolling at Cornell in the fall.

Fett’s newsletter contains other evidence that the birds are less than the Fowl Beta Kappas of the ornithological world. One owner reports an especially amorous peacock with a tendency to try to mate not just with peahens but with trees, cars, cats, lawnmowers, and fire hydrants. At the San Diego Zoo, there was even a bird that repeatedly flashed its feathers and strutted for a topiary that had been clipped into the shape of a flamingo.

Given all these drawbacks, it is not at all clear whether pet owners will eventually accept peafowl as the Akitas of the 1990s. To be sure, Fett and Buck have found the early returns at least encouraging. Last year alone they sold a dozen adult birds, three dozen chicks, and over 1,000 fertilized eggs to birders around the country. To be honest, however, my initial impression was that unless you’ve got a few acres, preferably out in the country--maybe even in another country--you may want to give peafowl a pass.

But don’t go by me. Having given up on birds long ago, I’ve been moving steadily down the pet ladder, going from gerbils to fish to an ant farm that practically needed government subsidies to keep operating. Currently I’m deciding between an attractive air fern and a small, obedient bowl of aquarium gravel. I know they won’t provide much companionship, but they’re quiet, they don’t eat much, and as long as I don’t name either of them Pretty Boy, we should do just fine.
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